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Lessons From Improv

Improv provides a lot of lessons for writing, creativity, team work, and even your own tabletop campaigns. But if you don't have time to take lessons, then here's a look at what you can apply to your own game writing and design.

Gregory Pellechi, Blogger

February 28, 2019

12 Min Read

So you’re writing a game, and you’re not the creative director, lead writer, or in any way in charge. You’re tasked with writing and the only things you have to work with are the whims of your team.

That’s not an entirely horrible situation. Granted I don’t know what your team is like or how constraining you find the ideas they’re presenting. But I do have a solution for you to get this all to work, and hopefully for you writing to be better.

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That’s why we’re looking to Improv for how we can improve our game writing. After all improv is part of improve.

“Improv relies just as much on listening as it does you delivering dialogue. That’s hard for some people. Some people just concentrate on what they’re going to say next, and they’re not listening. You have to listen in order to see where the other person is going.” — J.B. Smoove

Take a look online and you’ll find plenty of improv classes or lessons. They can be great fun, improve your ability to communicate with others or perform. Of course they’re also useful for helping you understand and empathize with others, or just do better at team work. But applying some of those lessons to writing requires a bit of thought.

Mainly because improv is about immediacy. You as an actor choose your actions based on what is happening before you. Though it is not without consideration of what came before, nor what you’d like to see happen in the future.

Writing on the other hand is about planning. Or at least it is when it comes to video games. It sucks that it’s rare that as writers we’re allowed to freely explore and see where characters take us. But with other people relying on us for scripts, it’s understandable that things are a little more contrived.

And speaking of contrived, how about some contrivances of our own for this lesson. We’re going to cover four points lessons from improv.

Lesson 1: Avoid Wimping & Pimping

These two are very closely related, and not just because they rhyme. Rather in improv, they’re about relying on others to do the creative work and think up new ideas.

Before we go further, these technics apply to both writing and working with others. The latter being vital to larger teams where you aren’t the only writer. And even if you are the only one you’ll inevitably being taking into account the ideas and story pitched by others on the team. Or at you may even be doing narrative triage in which case you really don’t get to pitch ideas but have to work with what you’re given.

The entire idea of Wimping and Pimping stems from the idea of being an active participant. In stories a character is an active participant when they generate ideas and make decisions, basically they don’t rely on others to do everything for them.

It’s Princess Leia moving from a captive and reactive character in A New Hope, to an active one when she grabs Luke’s blaster rifle and takes charge. This isn’t to say you need to dominate any writing room you’re in, but rather that you don’t just react passively.

Or more precisely if you are on the receiving end of an idea or suggestion you roll with it and don’t just answer with something non-committal. Any time someone answers a question in improv with a shrug, or an “I don’t know”, they’re wimping.

Wimping, understandably, isn’t a great way to endear yourself to your team. You aren’t giving them anything to work with if all you ever offer is nothing.

Pimping, perhaps unintuitively, is not the exact opposite of wimping. Rather, it’s doing much the same thing as you’re not providing anything new to a scene. All you’re doing is asking questions and getting others to come up with the ideas. Granted you are allowed to ask questions, so it isn’t something you should wholly avoid. Only do so in moderation.

Basically, as a writer or really any time you’re an employee, you’ll do better and be more appreciated if you’re generating ideas and solutions. That’s not to say there won’t be times or bosses who don’t like that approach. But generally it’s better if you’re active.

The same holds true for characters. We like those who do something about their situation. In horror stories we cheer for those who try and do something. We like superheroes because they aren’t standing by while villainy takes over. So the same should hold true when it comes to being a writer.

Lesson 2: Never Say No

Or rather always say “yes but” or “and then”. This follows on well from Wimping and Pimping because like those, this is about working with others and their ideas.

No one likes their idea to be shot down immediately without any consideration. I doubt you do. So a simple thing to do, and a way of letting the “best idea float to the top” is to never say no. Instead, say “yes but”, or “and then”.

Imagine you’re tossing ideas around for a new game. And someone says what if there’s a grappling hook! Bit of editorial — they’re awesome by the way. I love Titanfall 2’s, and Spider-man’s webs are no different. But let’s say you’re actually a bad and boring person who doesn’t like grappling hooks. So your immediate inclination is to say no.

What if you didn’t. What if instead you rolled with the idea of a grappling hook and then wanted to add to that idea. Well then you’d say something like, “There’s a grappling hook, but it damages everything it grabs on to.” Doing that small thing means you’re creating an interesting situation that could be comedic or dramatic, but in the case of a game also makes for some interesting systemic interactions.

An alternative to the “yes but” is the aforementioned, “and then”. Going with the example of the grappling hook you could say, “You get a grappling hook and then have to swing from airship to airship.” That immediately opens a whole world of possibilities. What those are I’ll leave to you. Just know if you write that story I want my cut.

Staying positive and playing off of or building on ideas is fun, it’s creates a positive atmosphere when working with others, and it can generate some really outrageous ideas that you wouldn’t necessarily have come to otherwise. And whether you’re doing that for comedic gold, or to tell interesting stories it’s still a great technique.

For proof of that look no further than Matt Parker and Trey Stone, the creators of South Park. It’s a technique they use to generate their episodes. And while the humor can be hit or miss, or simply not to your liking, they have inevitably written a lot.

If you want to try your hand at this technique but don’t want to take an improv class, then have I got the thing for you! It’s a tabletop roleplaying system designed by yours truly!

It’s a simple system built on the entire premise of rolling with whatever happens. All you need are 2 dice, some friends, and your imagination to play. You’ll find a link to where you can purchase the system for in the show notes.

Self-promotion aside, tabletop roleplaying games, or pen and paper roleplaying games as they’re sometimes known, are perfect places to try these techniques out. Mainly because you’re doing cooperative storytelling and you never know what others will do. Everything you do is a lesson in improv.

The emergence of actual play podcasts and series is the perfect way to get a better understanding of these techniques. That’s why I recommend listening to Campaign Podcast, the One Shot Podcast, NeoScum, Autonomic, or the shows from Saving Throw. The links for all of them are in the show notes. Lots of people recommend Critical Role or Geek and Sundry though I’ve never watched either. You should also check out Friends at the Table, because while they’re not comedians and actors they’ve got some great storytelling chops.

But in listening or watching those shows you’ll get a better idea of what and how these techniques can work to keep a story going. Or at the very least keep people on track with generating ideas.

Lesson 3: Progressive Complications

This ties in directly with the idea of saying “Yes but”, because that “but” is there to add a complication. If every addition to a story solved the problems already presented the there’s no drama. And if there’s no drama, then there’s n o comedy either.

“Progressive complications move stories forward, never backward. They do so by making life more and more difficult (in positive as well as negative ways) for your lead character. In other words, you cannot have your protagonist stare down the same dilemma in act 3 or act 2 that the character already faced in act 1. You must progressively move from one dilemma to a more trying dilemma to a bigger problem to an even bigger problem etc.” — Shawn Coyne

The best improv actors understand this and utilize it, not to throw their compatriots under the proverbial bus, but because it makes for good storytelling. Their choices help resolve the previous problems presented in the scene but in providing new ones ensure the story doesn’t come to a swift end.

Not that they exclude untimely deaths and demises. Those are entirely possible. Just look at an example of Whose Line Is It Anyways and how they’re able to introduce new characters to a scene. Or not in this case.

You get the point. Hopefully. If not I assume you’ve had a good laugh.

The prime example I like to use for this is The Empire Strikes Back. Those on the Millennium Falcon are having to escape the Empire, but the first progressive complication comes from their hyperdrive engine not working. So they have to keep fleeing the capital ships which then launch TIE fighters to chase them. They then encounter the asteroid field, the third progressive complication, but eventually are able to hide after losing the TIE Fighters. The fourth complication is the mynocks, aka space parasites, sucking the energy from the ship while they’re hiding in the asteroid field. If they don’t have power then they can’t fly away, so Han shots the mynocks off but causes the fifth complication. Which is the giant Space Slug that they must escape, only to end up right back in front of the Empire. And the final complication comes from Boba Fett’s presence, but that only pays off later.

If you want a game example, look to Halo. In it the Master Chief has to defeat the Covenant, but in order to do so he releases the Flood which is a parasitic space zombie. So now Master Chief must fight and defeat both. Oh and stop the super weapon they’re all currently on. It’s just one problem after another, with each occurring as a result of the Chief’s efforts to resolve the previous problem. It’s fantastic!

And yes I know it wasn’t all the Chief’s doing, but the humans’ loss of their ship, the need to fight off the Covenant, and then the need to survive the Flood, topped by stopping a super weapon from destroying the universe really ups the progressive complications in a thrilling, holy shit sort of way.

Lesson 4: Listen and Trust

No one sets out to make a bad game, or tell a bad story. Well not unless they’re The Producers. To get a game shipped is a team effort and that requires trust. That trust is built over time, through a variety of means, but a big one that needs to be emphasized is listening.

Listening means a lot when it comes to game writing and development. There’s the team you need to listen to, the play testers, the game systems and mechanics, and then there’s the story and the characters within. And juggling who gets priority is never going to be easy.

Improv is great for learning to balance those demands because listening is an active skill. You can’t just be focused on what you’re doing or want to do, but have an idea of the bigger picture and how others fit into it. Of course this may not be entirely possible on teams of 100 people more.

Getting a game shipped is like rowing a boat together, you all have to row in time together and the same direction to get anywhere. Listening is what helps you coordinate while still leaving room for creativity. That of course is where my metaphor falls apart because there’s no real room for creativity in rowing a boat. Maybe in the song you sing as you do?

Singing does tend to be a large part of improv comedy… Of course these lessons aren’t just from improv comedy, they’re just as true for other forms of improvisational theater. We just tend to experience improv comedy more than any other form. And all of it, whether it’s trying to make us laugh or cry, is trying to tell a story. So there’s always something to be learned from it.

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